A NEW SET OF EYES

Originally published on A Hobbit's Tale

Among my friends and family, I’ve gotten a bit of a reputation as a globetrotter. Truly, I’ve been very fortunate to have done a lot of traveling the past few years. Different seasons of life bring different opportunities and sensing that I was in a perfect stage of life to grow by exploring the world, I took advantage of just about every opportunity I found in order to see new places, eat new foods, and gain new experiences. The past two years in particular have been especially nomadic for me. They’ve taken me to elephant herds in Botswana, canals in Amsterdam, and red rocks in Colorado.

Each journey has helped me become a better traveler. Among the most valuable of travel skills has been the art of packing light. I’ve gotten to the point where I’m comfortable going an entire month out of a single backpack. The thing about traveling light is that you can’t take many souvenirs. I’ve never been a big souvenir guy, really, but sometimes it is nice to have some curios that remind you of an adventure.

Every now and then, though, something else reminds me of an adventure abroad.

The other week, I hung out with some new friends for the first time. We got pho, and since our conversation far outlasted the meal, they invited me over to spend the afternoon talking and taking it easy. It was a very relaxed afternoon. There was little structure to the conversation. There was, however, a lot of presence. We were able to enjoy each others’ company without worrying about when we would have to rush off. It was an incredibly relaxing Sunday afternoon.

It reminded me of another culture. In the U.S., time moves fast, and everything has a lot of structure- even the way we hang out. Often, when the meal is finished, so is the conversation. At the very least, when the meal and conversation have both hit a pause, that means it’s time to get up and get going. American efficiency does have its upside, but it was when I was abroad did I also realize the full beauty of being able to sit and do nothing for a little bit. Hanging with my new friends that Sunday brought back memories of places like Turkey or Italy, where sticking to an agenda was not as much of a priority as being with people.

I realized that my ability to savor the moment, and my appreciation for moving slowly was honed and nurtured by other cultures that this world has to offer. In its own way, this mentality was its own souvenir. And it was a self-sustaining souvenir at that. With every chance taken to slow things down and take in a moment, I was creating another memory worth treasuring.

One of my favorite quotes is Marcel Proust’s legendary conclusion that “the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” I have yet to encounter anything that has broadened my perspective in the same way that exploring has. My “new eyes,” as Proust would say, are my souvenirs. They’re not the kind you can put on a shelf. They’re the kind that you live out on a daily basis.

When I lived in Italy for a few months, I learned how to live like an Italian. What I mean by that, mostly, is that I learned how to do things slowly and simply. Not sluggishly, but slow with contentment. I lived in Siena, and like most ancient Italian cities, I could walk from one end to the other with ease. I would walk to class in the mornings. I’d watch the other people as they walked, the dog-walkers, the sidewalk artists, and the nuns, and it was like watching the city come to life. In the afternoon, I might stop into a café or shop for a bit, then continue my walk home. I’d try to remember to look up more, because Siena is rich in art history, but a lot of its quirky paintings and sculptures are on the sides of buildings, not at eye level. Then, I’d swing by the grocery and just get what I needed for that day. Italians use fewer preservatives, meaning that a lot of their food goes bad in just a couple of days. Finally, I would cook, experiment, and try to make something new.

I have yet to return to Italy since that summer four years ago. However I can still see the impact that the summer in Siena had on the simple ways in which I live my life. Italy was where I learned how to cook, and I still use lots of mushrooms, zucchini, and eggplant. Basil goes with everything. I try to walk most places, whenever possible. I know that the U.S.A. was made for the car, but whenever possible, I would prefer to walk, or at least, and take in my surroundings a little bit more openly. And quite frequently, I remember to look up. You can miss out on a lot of beauty by only looking out on a horizontal plane.

I could go on and on about how my perspective has been enriched. That was just Italy. I could talk about how Argentina revitalized my faith, or how South Africa awakened a sense of human compassion.

There hasn’t been a moment where I’ve regretted embracing the life of a explorer. And yet, I know I wasn’t cut out to be a permanent traveler. Okay, I can dig the spiritual metaphor of always “being on a journey,” but knowing what I want out of life, I know there will come a time where I probably won’t be as free to wander. I’m okay with that. This fall, I will be moving to Oregon, with a lot more permanency than I’ve taken to any other place. But I feel good about what lies ahead. You never truly stop exploring once you have those “new eyes.”

Philippe Lazaro2013